It’s fair to say that Britain is in the grip of something of a Bake Off epidemic at the moment. In fact, last summer, more than 13 million of us tuned in to watch Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry crown their Great British Bake-Off winner, Nadiya Hussain.
Among the ardent fans of the show is one of the country’s finest chefs, Tom Kerridge. “I absolutely love The Great British Bake Off. It’s the best cookery TV show for a long time,” says Tom. Which is why he didn’t hesitate when he was asked to present a brand-new spin-off show called Crème de la Crème.
“I couldn’t wait to be a part of the Bake Off family,” he says, “although I did feel nervous about hosting the spin-off of a cultural phenomenon! Comparisons will be made, undoubtedly. But it’s not Bake Off. It’s a completely different show.”
It most certainly is. This time around, those dusting down their benches are not talented amateur bakers, they are professional pastry chefs who work in hotels, restaurants, patisseries, development kitchens and even for the armed forces. What’s more, they won’t be working alone, but in 15 teams of three. And, together, their standards are, according to Tom, sky high.
That’s just as well. Crème de la Crème has three titans of taste to judge the bakers’ efforts, while the reigning King and Queen of Great British Bake Off – Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry – are nowhere to be seen.
Instead, afternoon tea expert, Cherish Finden, celebrated pastry chef Claire Clark MBE and Benoit Blin, Chef Patissier at Raymond Blanc’s restaurant and so-called ‘pastry God’ are the internationally-renowned chefs in question. And if you thought Mary and Paul were difficult to please, you ain’t seen nothing yet!
I love The Great British Bake Off... it's the best TV cookery show
The cosy familiarity of the famous white Bake Off tent is absent, too. This show’s rather more intimidating location is the old library of Welbeck Abbey, a Grade I-listed stately home within Sherwood Forest, on the borders of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Here, teams compete in weekly heats before progressing to the semi-finals and grand final.
Each heat kicks off with the ‘miniatures’ round, where the contestants make the kind of delicious delicacies served for afternoon tea. “In the three-hour challenge, they make three different miniatures and 36 of each,” says Tom. “So that’s 108 creations. Every one has to look immaculate and fantastic.”
They must then reinvent a popular dessert in the second round as a breath-taking showpiece. In week one it’s apple pie and custard.
“The contestants are hugely competitive. The moment we say: ‘Your time starts now...’ the room is charged with emotion and passion. The end results are jaw-dropping.”
And the stress the chefs are under is massive. After appearing on The Great British Menu, Tom knows a thing or two about the effects of working in such a pressure-cooker environment and being judged on camera. But are professionals affected by nerves just like amateurs?
“Nerves are a big thing,” nods Tom. “A lot of chefs compete in culinary competitions, but when they’ve never been on TV and there are six cameras there... the reality hits home,” he says.
“I’m sitting there, thinking ‘If I’d just made a dessert for Benoit Blin to taste I’d be feeling very nervous, so how those three guys are feeling...’ You go on this emotional rollercoaster with them.”
Tom admits he recently boarded his own rollercoaster when he dished up for another Bake Off judge... Mr Paul Hollywood. “I do the BBC Good Food Show and, at the last one, Paul came on stage after my demonstration and tried the dessert I’d made,” recalls Tom. “It was one of those terrifying moments you think: ‘Oh my God! Paul Hollywood is eating my dessert in front of 3,000 people. Please say you like it.’ Thankfully, Paul said: ‘I don’t like it... I love it!’ Whatever level you’re at, you want to impress him.”
Tom has certainly come a long way from the food he first served up as a lad. “I was doing fish finger sandwiches and Findus Crispy Pancakes for me and my brother,” he grins. “It wasn’t a cooking thing, it was out of necessity; we were latch-key kids and me and my brother needed something to eat while my mum was still at work. But you remember that sense of achievement, no matter how small, that you’ve made a fish finger sandwich.”
Tom later progressed onto bigger and better things after he found a job in a professional kitchen – again out of necessity when he needed the money. “When I was 18, I ended up working as a kitchen porter washing up. I fell in love with the environment straightaway.
“The kitchen is full of people who work hard and play hard, there’s banter, you’re a team,” says the man who’s received not one but two prestigious Michelin stars and is responsible for transforming the standard of the nation’s pub grub.
Tom puts his incredible success down to hard graft and the inspiration of Marco Pierre White whose cookery book, White Heat, his mum bought him as a young man. “Marco had two Michelin stars as a 25-year-old. It inspired me to believe you could achieve stuff. It doesn’t matter what you look like, where you come from, whether you’ve got polished black shoes on in the kitchen or a pair of trainers... as long as you’re working really hard.”
And then, you too could become the crème de la crème.
Did you know...?
- Tom has worked at a number of British restaurants, including the Michelin-starred Rhodes in the Square and Adlards.
- With his wife Beth, he opened the gastropub The Hand & Flowers in 2005 and within a year gained his first Michelin star
- As a chef he has appeared on the Great British Menu, MasterChef and Saturday Kitchen
- He attended a youth theatre for three weeks when he was spotted and cast in the Christmas special of the BBC One television show Miss Marple
Bake Off: Crème de la Crème is on BBC2 on Tuesdays
There's more star chat in every issue of Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.